Time has come for fresh thinking on ‘populism’

This week’s contribution to the contagion of populism comes from Austria, whose government has refused to sign up to the newly drafted UN Global Compact for Migration, the aim of which is to better manage legal population flows, as the number of people on the move, fleeing persecution or poverty, increases.

Vienna’s “nein” follows similar rejections of the UN plan by Hungary, Poland, and the US, where President Donald Trump says he will march up to 15,000 troops to the Mexican border as a shield against the caravan of migrants on their long march north from Central America. His call to arms surprised and alarmed the Pentagon, which has a somewhat smaller force in Afghanistan. For Mr Trump, needs must: The US elects a new Congress on Tuesday, and Republicans risk losing their thin majority in the lower house. Mr Trump’s concrete wall on the border has yet to be built so, he says, “We have to have a wall of people.”

Looking across the planet at the voter revolts against the moderate orthodoxies decreed by long-established political parties, it’s possible to deplore the phenomenon as an almost global outbreak of irrational fear or a tsunami of stupidity.

In some specific cases, it might well be close to that. Mitt Romney, the Republican’s White House nominee in 2012, is a Mormon, who is asked by his Church to believe that Jesus visited the land that was to become, some 1,776 years later, the US. So perhaps it’s reasonable to suggest politely that the jobless, and understandably angry, blue-collar voters in Iowa, Pennsylvania, and the like, who believed that the billionaire property dealer from Queens, New York City, was the man to drain the Washington swamp, were not stupid, but simply gullible. Yet, they were right in reckoning that Mrs Clinton wouldn’t even attempt it.

Mr Trump apart, what explains the populism seen in Brazil, Britain, central, southern, and eastern Europe and even, albeit under-reported, in Australia? Causes differ, as do nations. Brazilians have elected a president who has condoned dictatorship, argued for torture and a relaxation of gun laws, laughed about murdering his left-wing opponents, and who rubbishes women, homosexuals, minorities, and rainforests. He won because he had the backing not only of his ultra-conservative base, but of centre-ground voters who could no longer stomach the systemic corruption of the country’s so-called progressive, leftist establishment.

Australia’s economic growth has slowed, wages have been frozen, job insecurity is widespread, and new parties exploiting the anti-establishment are on the move.

Thanks in part to the immigration crisis, the far-right Alternative for Deutschland is the largest opposition party in Germany’s parliament, and right-wing, Eurosceptic coalition governments of one sort or another now run Poland, Hungary, Italy, and Austria, whose chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, perceives the UN’s compact on immigration as a threat to his country’s national sovereignty.

What tends to be ignored in the chatter about the zeitgeist is that these populist governments and radical parties are, in a word, popular; the clue is on the tin. Like it or not, they have been elected in free and fair ballots. Mr Kurz is delivering the programme he offered voters; radical, isn’t it?

Horrified establishment parties and figures on both sides of the Atlantic, accustomed to having their way, have responded to this tide, and what it washes in, with hand-wringing about Russian campaigns to wreck the post-war order that Nato and the EU created, and about uninformed voters vulnerable to the enticements of rabble-rousers, and of liars, says France’s president. What has not been seen, so far, is any serious attempt to examine the faultlines in the government structures and institutions that are being rejected by voters, who believe their legitimate concerns about the shock of vast and sudden immigration on neighbourhoods and cultures, de-industrialisation, the rootlessness of capital, and the impact of the single euro currency on weak economies have been ignored by a political and business class that continues to thrive, while all around it declines and decays. The only response has been to put a pejorative twist on popular, turning it into an insult.


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